Art for Change: A Brief History of Protest Art

Art has inspired change since the earliest incarnations of mark-making but modern protest art has shifted the goalposts. Discover the impact of protest art.

Jun 8, 2024By Patrick Kirk-Smith, MA Creative Practice, BA (Hons) Art & Design

art change brief history protest art


From the earliest civilizations to the present day, art has been a function of protest. There are examples of protest art in every era of human history. Some pieces have played active roles in shaping our modern freedoms, while others have helped societies express their disdain for their leaders. Protest is, by its very nature, permissionless. Working without permission is powerful, and in every case in the timeline below, has spawned art for change.


3000 BCE: Early Examples of Protest Art in Ancient Egypt

destroyed egyptian bust akhenaten
Destroyed Egyptian Bust of Akhenaten, circa 1300 BCE, Source: Smithsonian Learning Lab


It was Akhenaten, part of the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt that sparked the first truly high-profile, civilization-changing, era of protest art. Akhenaten’s more famous successor, Tutankhamun, began a wave of destruction, repurposing statues of Akhenaten in his own image. Tut reneged aggressively on the maligned pharaoh’s legacy of religious heresy. Like much of the protest art that continues into the present day, it was religious sentiment that ignited the flame.


The actions of Tutankhamun and countless pharaohs who followed in his footsteps were not just to destroy the artwork, but to re-carve statues and paint over reliefs. Modern scanning shows the carved images that lie beneath more recent paintings that sought to delete the legacy of Akhenaten. Not simply by wiping his chosen motifs, but by replacing them with the thing he despised most—the gods.


15th & 16th Century CE: Renaissance Art That Inspired Protest

leonardo da vinci flying machine design
Design for a Flying Machine, Leonardo Da Vinci. Source:


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Millennia passed before art was recognized as a creative pursuit, and the term artisan ceased to refer to a simple trader. There are examples of Islamic art protesting cultural changes, and art that predates both that and the Renaissance, but both have offered artists all over the world the trigger for contextual, opinionated, self-reflecting, art. Protest art in the Renaissance era was as much a representation of the commissioner as the artist. Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Donatello were all commissioned by the same powerful patron, Cosimo de Medici, throughout their careers. But it is Leonardo da Vinci whose work inspired a revolution that would change the world.


His more famous works, like the Mona Lisa, offer some representation of this, but not accurately. They were commissions. It was, rather, in his ability to create and represent ideas that his work shifted the structure of society. The spark ignited by that goes beyond his peers. It represents the ideals of the Renaissance as a mass cultural protest. The result is a world where the creative process can be as valued as any manual skill.


1800s: The Rise of Mass-Produced Protest Art

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The British Constitution, 1819, Published by James Wroe. Source: The National Archives, London


In 1819, a cartoon published by James Wroe, 49 Great Ancoats Street, Manchester was sent directly to Henry Addington, an early Tory Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. The skeleton shows the remains of John Bull, a fictional everyman drawn by many artists. The cartoon is one of the clearest examples of art that set out to inspire political change, but it is by no means the earliest.


The printing press has its roots in China’s Tang Dynasty (c. 868 CE), but mass reproduction began in Germany in the 15th century CE. In the four hundred years that followed, artists started using mass reproduction as a medium. By the 19th century CE, print gave a voice to those who were now under the rule of a version of modern democracy that was finding its feet. The power of some of these mass-produced comics is without parallel.


1920s: Otto Dix’s Moral Protests and the Rise of Contemporary Art

otto dix etching shock troops 1924 protest art
Shock Troops Advance under Gas from The War, Otto Dix, 1924. Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York


Otto Dix is one of the most important protest artists of the 20th century. His prints and paintings took stylistic inspiration from the protest cartoons of the 19th century. His subject matter was mostly focused on war, but he also critiqued capitalism. Having fought on behalf of the Weimar Republic in World War I, his critique was not of the political leadership of Germany. It was a more personal reflection on the horrors of war. Before, during, and after the war, his work stands as a potent reminder of the horrors of war. In an art historical context, Otto Dix’s protest art is not as direct as what came later, but it lays the foundation for it.


The 1980s: How Keith Haring Made Protest Art Human

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Keith Haring drawing on a subway platform, c.1982. Source: Tate, London



Keith Haring was only 31 years old when he died. His brief working life was a thriving mix of public graffiti, commissioned murals, and AIDS awareness campaigns. Artists like Andy Warhol paved the way for Haring’s ways of working. The two quickly became his peers and by 1984, they were both comfortable enough with their processes to share a nonchalant interview. Haring and Warhol’s interview in Interview Magazine showed that their protest art was simply a campaign for awareness and acceptance. It was not violently active, nor was it sedentary.


For them, protest was a need. Haring’s natural drive towards that is a huge turning point in the objectivity of public art. By the 1980s, protest art had become incredibly specific in its subjects. It included all kinds of things, from posters emblazoning messages of women’s suffrage from the early 20th century to works by artists like Benny Andrews who helped to present the Black Power movement to the masses in the 1960s. By the 1980s, artists like Keith Haring seemed essential, showing powerful, emotional, representations of the morals we should aim for.


1980s: Revisiting Old Protests as the Guerrilla Girls Fight for Change

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Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum?, The Guerrilla Girls, 1989. Source: The Guerrilla Girls website; next to It’s Even Worse in Europe, The Guerrilla Girls, 1989. Source: The Guerrilla Girls website


Suffrage as a movement began formally in 1903. During the 20th century, many artists were fighting for women’s rights in various ways. Formed in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls turned facts and figures into shock and awe. Their most famous works target injustices within the art world, and some are utterly unforgettable thanks to their brutally blunt forthrightness like It’s Even Worse in Europe from 1989. No one does protest art better than the Guerrilla Girls.


2020s: Collectivist Protest Across the Art World

you will reap what you sow putin poster kriss salmanis
Ko sēsi, to pļausi (You Will Reap What You Sow), Krišs Salmanis, 2022. Source: IR Magazine



Today, protest art seems to be limited by those who coordinate and commission. Protest art of the 2020s is as much a reflection of the politics of the galleries that show it as the artists who create it. Take You will Reap What You Sow by Krišs Salmanis as an example. It is one of the most powerful and memorable images of recent years. It was commissioned as the cover for Latvia’s IR magazine in March 2022. Then, it was reproduced by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art to be hung on the façade of the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of Medical History. The building it hung from was opposite the Russian embassy in Latvia.


kris salmanis protest art
You Reap What You Sow by Kriss Salmanis on Display in Latvia, 2022. Source: Kriss Salmanis


Krišs Salmanis’s artwork possesses inherent power, which is further elevated through press coverage and recognition within the higher echelons of the art world. This collective impact, achieved through reproduction, political connections, and the shared moral compass of the art community, shows us how contemporary protest art functions.


Protest Art Has Changed Our World

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Skat Players (Die Skatspieler), Otto Dix, 1920. Source: MoMA, New York


Protest art was used to change the beliefs of civilizations and the ambitions of creative thinkers across continents. Many artists in history used the tools at their disposal to create images that could change the world. Today, protest art uses the functions of modern civilization like collectivism, information access, and the freedom of the press. That can be hard for artists because it holds their personal beliefs to account very publicly, but it also gives them a wider platform. Occasionally, that platform can shape public opinion. Today, the protest art of past generations is a visual reminder of the fights fought to achieve many different goals.

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By Patrick Kirk-SmithMA Creative Practice, BA (Hons) Art & DesignPatrick is Editor-of-Art at the Liverpool Newspaper (the UK’s only monthly print journal focused on local visual art) and Director of Independents Biennial (developing opportunities for North West artists). His focus through all elements of creative practice is on language and accessibility, making sure all parts of the art world are accessible to people without any experience of it.